Sifting Through the Pretenders to Find the Contenders
By Cary Greene
June 28, 2022
I started this series off by pointing out that pitching wins championships. This is not my opinion, but rather, a cold, hard fact that 117 consecutive years of World Series history has proven. Only eight teams in history have ever won a World Series despite having below average regular season pitching and five of them can be weeded out on the grounds that their pitching was significantly better in the World Series - meaning they won because of pitching that got way better when it mattered.
That leaves only three teams who won despite below average regular season pitching and then receiving even worse pitching in the World Series. One of those teams was cheating (stealing signs) and one barely qualified by a mere 0.08 in ERA+. That means really, the 2014 Giants are the only team to have conclusively proven that it’s possible to win with below average regular season and World Series pitching, but even they rode a single ace, Madison Bumgarner, through the playoffs, all the way to a title.
It’s very interesting and relevant to note the lesson the last 117 years of baseball history has taught us. Pitching is super important to any team that has designs on winning a World Series. Let’s get into Part Two of this series by examining who the real favorites are, since Fangraphs is very off base.
Who are the Real McCoy’s in 2022?
The League Average ERA+ this year, in what is being referred to as “the year of the pitcher," is presently a 102. This is an all-time high, rivaled only by the pandemic shortened season of 2020. What we’re seeing this year, so far, has never happened before. League-wide, pitching is as good as it’s ever been. But, even with that, there are a whopping 15 teams who’s pitching is below the league average ERA+. Interestingly, the Twins (100), Blue Jays (98) and White Sox (95) are all on this list. Therefore, they are all practically locks to fail in their quest to win the World Series.
Yankee fans may be ecstatic to hear that the Blue Jays won’t be winning it all this season. (Please remember you read about it here on SSTN first!)
Throughout baseball history, World Series winners have averaged a 113.31 ERA+. Though 15 teams have above League Average pitching this season, “only” nine are in the category of having regular season pitching that’s “on-par-with” World Series winners.
The Dodgers, who finished with an ERA+ of 137 last season, presently have the best pitching in baseball, sitting at 145. They are followed this year by the
2. Yankees (130)
3. Astros (123)
4. Braves (118)
5. Red Sox (118)
6. Brewers (114)
7. Rays (114)
8. Padres (113)
It’s pretty safe to say that one of these teams will be the 2022 World Series champions, because my ERA+ rule is practically etched in stone. But let's look at this a little deeper.
Does Having “the Best” Pitching Matter?
When we consider that the Dodgers put up an OPS+ of 137 last year, we should recognize that their pitching was historically speaking, pretty incredible. In fact, the Dodgers 2021 ERA+ was a feat unmatched over the past 112 years. Not since the 1909 Cubs bested that mark with a 147 has MLB seen such incredible pitching depth on a single roster. Ironically, the Cubs didn’t win the World Series in ‘09 either, they somehow finished 6 ½ games behind the National League champion Pirates that year.
Using both the 1909 Cubs and the 2021 Dodgers as examples of two teams with historically outstanding pitching as examples, it’s accurate to surmise that just because a team has devastatingly good pitching, it’s no guarantee that the team with the best pitching in a given season will win the World Series.
Believe it or not, the team with the best regular season pitching has won the World Series only 21 times (18% of the time). The average World Series winner actually usually has “only” the seventh best regular season pitching in a particular season. This means that it’s super important to have well above average pitching, but just because a team has “the best” pitching, it’s no guarantee they’ll win.
Is Hitting What Really Wins Championships?
Definitively, the answer is no. If a team can’t pitch, they’re highly unlikely to win. That said, using OPS+ as an offensive barometer, the team with the best offense in baseball, as determined by OPS+, has won the World Series 38 times - 32.5% of the time.
World Series winners sport an average OPS+ of 104.1 - since 1903. Surprisingly, the champions throughout World Series history have somewhere between the fifth and sixth best offenses in a given season.
Recapping all that history - World Series winners on average have the fifth or sixth best offense in a given year and they have the fifth best team pitching.
We can take all this history and whittle down this season’s list of “real contenders” to a much more exclusive list.
The Best Way to Determine the Real Contenders:
What we can do is take our list of the eight 2022 contenders (all who have ERA+ numbers that are on par with past World Series winners) and use OPS+ to whittle this list down by determining that their offenses likely won’t provide adequate run production against superior postseason pitching.
Fangraphs contenders are listed in the chart below. I list their percentage chances of the team winning against the historical data. The final column is my percentage chances. In this I wanted to illustrate just how off-base I think Fangraphs is when it comes to truly predicting the World Series winner.
The goal of this series is to explain why the Yankees are one of only five teams who are legitimate World Series contenders.
Some Additional Observations:
● The Mets have a VASTLY lower chance of winning it all than Fangraphs is projecting. They really don’t have the pitching (presently). Their plan should be to add significant pitching at the Trade Deadline this season, otherwise, they simply aren’t going to make it. The Mets presently have almost no chance of beating the Dodgers in a seven-game NL Championship series.
● Both the Brewers and the Rays should have much higher chances of winning. They each have enough pitching and if either of their pitching staffs get hot, look out! But, their offenses will also need to get hot. This makes it unlikely, but not impossible, for either of these two teams to win it all.
● The Padres may be one or two key moves away from truly being a possible champion. Their pitching is right-there and they have enough offense to provide run production against elite pitching. I think Fangraphs has their chances about right.
● The Red Sox are a team very few people see coming right now. They may need to improve the offense with a key deal or perhaps do this in the form of promoting a blue-chip prospect like Triston Casas, but they're more in it than many realize.
● All of the other teams Fangraphs feels could win a World Series actually have virtually no chance at all. They simply don’t have the pitching. This means that the Phillies, Giants, Mets, Cardinals, White Sox and Twins are collectively nothing more than playoffs cannon fodder for vastly better constructed teams to feast on in October.
Tomorrow, in the final article in this series, I’ll examine the real World Series contenders and predict not only what the Yankees postseason will look like this year, but what they’ll have to do in order to win it all and end the 12-year World Series championship drought.